You've probably heard about tragic meningitis cases on the news at one point or another, but it may have seemed like a rare disease that couldn't affect your kids. True, bacterial meningitis isn't very common. But the illness is usually serious and can be life-threatening if it's not treated right away.
That's why a national advocacy group is urging moms and dads to make sure their kids get a routine vaccine to help fend off meningitis, an inflammation of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord.
The immunization could protect children against a potentially deadly disease that some parents may not have thought twice about, says the National Meningitis Foundation, an organization founded by the parents of kids who've died or live with permanent disabilities from meningococcal disease. The vaccine provides protection from meningococcal disease — a serious bacterial infection that can lead to bacterial meningitis.
Although meningococcal infections are rare, bacterial meningitis is highly contagious. And for 15% of teens who get it, meningitis causes long-term problems (like hearing loss, learning disabilities, and brain damage). And it kills about 10% of adolescents who are infected, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Kids can get meningitis at any age but teens, college students, and boarding-school students are at higher risk for infection because the disease can be easily spread between people living in close quarters.
More on Meningitis
Viral meningitis (also called aseptic meningitis) is pretty common and a lot less serious than bacterial meningitis. The viral form of the illness tends to cause flu-like symptoms (like fever, headache, and runny nose) and may be so mild that it goes undiagnosed. Luckily, most cases of viral meningitis go away on their own within 7 to 10 days without any complications or need for treatment.
But the symptoms of meningitis vary and depend on how old the child is and what caused the infection. And the flu-like symptoms can be very similar in both types of meningitis.
The first signs of bacterial or viral meningitis can come on quickly (in a matter of hours) or surface over several days after a child has had a cold and runny nose, diarrhea and vomiting, or other signs of an infection. Other common symptoms include:
- fever (often high)
- photophobia (eye sensitivity to light)
- stiff neck
- skin rashes
Infants with meningitis may show a different array of symptoms, like:
- trouble being comforted, even when picked up or rocked
- excessive sleepiness
- jaundice (a yellowish tint to the skin)
- stiffness of the body and neck
- fever or lower-than-normal temperature
- poor feeding
- a weak suck
- a high-pitched cry
- bulging fontanelles (the soft spot at the top/front of the baby's skull)
The good news is that meningitis can be treated successfully if it's diagnosed right away. That's why it's important to know the signs of meningitis and seek medical care immediately if you think your child might have it.
The vaccine can also help keep kids from ever getting the disease in the first place. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends the meningitis vaccine for children:
- between 11 and 12 years old at their routine check-up
- ages 13 to 18 who still haven't gotten the vaccine, especially if they're going to college, boarding school, camp, or the military
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also approved the vaccine for 2- to 10-year-olds who are at increased risk of getting meningococcal disease. That includes kids who:
- will be traveling to countries where meningitis is common
- have had their spleen take out or whose spleen isn't working right
- have a condition called "terminal complement component deficiency," which makes it hard for their bodies to combat infections
- live in an area that has experience recent outbreaks of bacterial meningitis
Also, talk to your doctor about whether your kids should get the vaccine again if it's been 3 or more years since they were immunized against meningitis. And other routine vaccines can protect kids against meningitis that could be caused by other microorganisms, too, like Haemophilus influenza type b (Hib), measles, mumps, polio, and pneumococcus.
To ensure that your kids get all of the vaccines they need to help protect them from potentially devastating diseases, be sure to make and keep all well-child checkup appointments. If you have teens heading off to college, make extra sure that all of their immunizations are up to date — including the meningitis vaccine.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: September 2008